Stories that Move Me
By Cammie Breuer- Arts and Culture Editor
Hannaford Hall was packed the night of Wednesday, October 4th, but not for a class lecture. The Maine Writers and Publishers Association (MWPA) held a fundraiser to benefit their free community programs and scholarship opportunities. Several Mainers came to share the stories that shaped their lives, and the important life messages learned from these words of wisdom. The impressive panel included Tribal Ambassador for Penobscot Nation, Maulian Dana; Educator and museum professional, Chris Newell; Maine Speaker of the House, Rachel Talbot Ross; Grammy Winner, Dave Gutter; and award winning author, Richard Russo.
Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross was the first to share her story. Ross is a ninth generation Mainer and is the first black woman to become speaker of the house for the state of Maine. Her father, Gerald Talbot, was the first black Maine state representative. He helped pass a bill that assisted in having derogatory and offensive names of geographic places in Maine banned. Ross follows in her fathers footsteps and is a strong advocate for social justice. Today, 50 years later she continues to work towards eliminating offensive names, “I’m afraid we won’t get the job done”. Ross was joined on stage by Maya Williams who beautifully performed What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black by Margaret Burroughs. A copy of this poem where white letters printed on black paper hung in her fathers office for many years. Ross was drawn to the story Burrough conveys through her poem, invoking a sense of “pride” of ancestral history, and African American history.
The second story teller of the night was Chris Newell, citizen of the Passamaquoddy Tribe, and member of the award winning intertribal pow wow drum group, Mystic River Singers. Fittingly, Newell chose to honor his father and perform a song that he deemed to be the soundtrack of his childhood. This popular tribal dance song describes a journey across the Wabanaki territory, and all the lessons learned by the different tribes. Chris’s father, Wayne Newell, spent his life traveling through Wabanaki territory to gain knowledge about his culture that he felt couldn’t be learned in a college classroom. The song expresses the ‘journey’ is all about making connections with one another. Newell recalled his father believed that “Knowledge is the energy that occurs between us when we are in conversation with each other”. Chris deeply values all of the knowledge that his father passed down to him over the years. Now that his father has passed he has been able to pick up the song he sang so often and continue to go and teach its lessons.
Maulian Dana, Tribal Ambassador for Penobscot Nation spoke next. Dana is known for her activism in ending the use of Native Americans as sports mascots and replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, both of which are now Maine state law. Dana chose to honor the story of a member of her chosen family, William Stanley Yellow Robe, an Indigenous man from Montana. Dana met Bill when he was leading intertribal theater readings and productions at the University of Maine Orono where she was a student. Soon after meeting, Bill began to refer to Maulian as his niece. In indigenous culture, when a person has no children they take on others from the community to become their family. Dana felt loved and honored to be able to call Bill family. She gave breath to her uncle’s words by reading an excerpt from one of Bill’s plays Better-n-Indians, which mimics a museum tour guide taking people through a tour of Natives and their culture. On one occasion, Dana got to actually watch Bill perform as the tour guide in the play. Watching him discuss the issues that have been plaguing Native people for centuries, while also maintaining his classic sense of humor was something Dana will cherish forever. There are many reasons to be angry, and feel like a score needs to be settled, but the love and connections from friends and family is what matters most.
Up next was local Singer, songwriter, composer, and performer, Dave Gutter. He is best known as front man for “rustic overtones” and other indie bands. Recently Gutter won a Grammy for Best American Roots Performance for his song “Stomping Ground”, which he wrote for Aaron Neville. In the entertainment industry name dropping is a tool used by many to open doors. For the past 20 years Gutter has been proudly name-dropping David Bowie, and telling the story of how as a young musician his band got the opportunity to make music with him in New York. It was an exhilarating experience. Though all sense of reality seems to go out the window when you meet your idol. Gutter spent most of his time in a state of anxiety, “just act cool”. In the time they spent together Dave couldn’t find the courage to express to Bowie just how much of an impact he had on him. As Gutter’s career continued on time slipped away as it always does. On January 9, 2016 Dave attended a concert held by Tony Visconti, the man who put him in touch with Bowie. The line-up consisted of bands with certain musicians that Bowie had worked on his albums with. Gutter recalls thinking how these were the people that Bowie name dropped. The people who worked with him and inspired him to create some of his best music. The pair met up with Paul, a writer for Billboard magazine and friend of Bowie. Throughout the night Gutter would mention wanting to reconnect with Bowie some time but was only met with silence. At the end of the night Paul asked Dave for his phone number, and when he got home late that night he received the news of Bowie’s passing. Paul also requested to meet with Gutter for breakfast to talk. There he told him of a hiking trip that he had gone on with Bowie and Visconti, where Bowie disclosed that he only had a short time left to live. It baffled Gutter that broke the barriers of space with his music, and the barriers of gender with his performances was coming to terms with death. On that same trip, Bowie also spoke highly of Dave, how his band’s originality and passion gave him hope for new generations of musicians. A quiet confidence grew knowing that Bowie had believed in him, is what made Gutter perceive himself as an artist for the first time.
The last storyteller of the evening was Richard Russo, author of numerous novels and winner of the 2002 Pulitzer prize winner for his novel “Empire Falls”. Recently his novel Novel Straight Man has been turned into a series on AMC+ starring Bob Odinkirk which premiered earlier this year. Russo recalls growing up in upstate New York with his mother in an apartment upstairs from his grandparents. His mother worked long hours and had a long commute, it was his grandmother who he spent the most time with. They would always play cards and everyday around 5 she would go to the window and wait for her husband to come home. To a child, normalcy is what they know. To young Rousso it didn’t dawn on him to think anything weird of the fact that his grandparents rarely ever left their home, or didn’t seem to have any real friends. Looking back now as an adult in his 70’s, he could see something wasn’t right. Rousso knew that his own mother suffered from anxiety and took medication to manage it, but it wasn’t until both his mother and grandmother had passed that the truth began to reveal itself. He talked to his aunt and learned that his grandmother also suffered, much more severely from anxiety and OCD. The thing with answers is they only breed more questions. Suddenly all those afternoons playing cards made sense, not only was Russo finding comfort in his grandmother taking care of him, but she was finding comfort in staying in and spending quality time with someone. The new questions turned to his grandfather who had enlisted in WW2, leaving his wife in the care of their daughters. When he returned a couple years later he was once again confined by his home life. Rousso couldn’t help but wonder, Why go? This question can never be answered, and he argues that is what makes stories interesting. Such mystery is what we’re really looking for in stories. The ambiguous motives make the story more real, more complicated. Knowing what he knows now about his family’s past makes him love his grandfather more, not less.
The stories shared by everyone on the panel put into perspective how diverse our community is. Though no two people have the same experiences, everyone has their own struggles and stories to tell. It is through storytelling that we can expand our knowledge and understanding of each other, creating a more tight knit community.